If I teach my students any one thing, I hope that it is how to practice. As a young child, I remember sitting down at the piano…and then what? Maybe glancing at that notebook my teacher wrote in. Half-heartedly playing a scale or two. Opening one of my books and launching into a piece. I’d start with the first measure (which always sounded good considering all the extra repetition it got every time I restarted) and struggle my way through to the end. Do that a time or two or many, and call it a day. I may be dramatizing it a bit in my memory. It probably couldn’t have all been that bad (I did end up a musician, after all…) but it was a lot closer to that version of practice than the one that I had to discover bit by bit, through trial and mostly lots and lots of error. I didn’t really have a model of what to do at home, and though I had many amazing teachers to whom I owe so very much, I was never taught how to practice. Too often, we as teachers assume that the word itself is self-explanatory. Practice. There is an implication of repetition. There is an admonishment to spend lots of time at the piano. There are circles and arrows and highlighted passages in the music…
It wasn’t until I began teaching that I realized wrong approaches to practicing can often be more damaging than a lack of practice! The lovely expressive piece that devolves into a sloppy jumble. The shining performance that comes to a grinding halt in the middle of a recital when finger memory gives out. The reality is, each one of my kids spends maybe an hour with me each week. If they are conscientious little musicians, they spend another 5 or more hours at the piano alone, trying to figure out what to do, and often, through no fault of their own, undoing the progress they made at a lesson. Some are lucky to have parents that provide guidance. Sadly, often even the most well-meaning parent can’t offer much beyond “do it again.” I shudder as I remember one lesson when a student ‘fessed up that her mother had instructed her to just play each piece five times a day. A hold-over suggestion from the days when she was zipping through tiny method book songs—not so great for the four page Sonatina!
And so I try to educate my pupils and their parents about the danger of “do it again.” “Do it again” is absolutely vital, but it only works when each “again” comes with a specific goal, with full awareness and intention, with a deepening understanding, with a thoughtful process.
A few days ago, Erica Ann Sipes did two amazing blogposts about effective practicing. Limited in her practice time by a wrist injury, Erica recorded on video the process of learning a new piece in a way that makes every “do it again” count! I was deeply impressed and inspired by the intelligence, musicality and good sense of Erica’s playing. And then I immediately sent the videos to all my studio parents. “This is what real practicing looks and sound like!” I told them. Go here and here to read about and watch Erica’s practice sessions. And then see if you can resist the sudden urge to sit down and really work on a piece of music—I couldn’t!